None Dare Call it Witchcraft, by Gary North, New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1976, 253 pp., $8.
Gary North is a remarkable man. A young historian with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside, he is a vigorous supporter of free-market economics. Not only does he lecture widely on the subject, he is also a frequent contributor to such respected publications as the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Human Events, and The Freeman. But Dr. North has an even greater claim to distinction: he is a leading authority on Demons. Indeed, he is probably the best-known free-market demonologist active today.
None Dare Call It Witchcraft is a book about the occult, a subject that has been enjoying considerable popularity in recent years. We've all heard of the alleged phenomena: ESP, psychic surgery, UFO's, eyeless sight, and the like. North's proposed explanation is somewhat novel: demons. Why is it that some (emphasize: some) scientists, who are inclined toward belief in paranormal phenomena, have been reporting experimental results that, if valid, seem to undermine the very foundations of the rational universe? Dr. North believes he has the answer: "What is happening is quite simple: demons are beginning to affect the experiments."
Setting aside the question of whether the Demon hypothesis is the best possible explanation for the alleged existence of paranormal phenomena, one must first determine the validity of the evidence upon which the case for the occult rests. North's sources for his case studies of alleged incidents of "Spontaneous Human Combustion" (or SHC, when a person reportedly just bursts into flame, burning only the body but not nearby objects) are as follows: Mysterious Fires and Lights, a pulp paperback by an author who specializes in occult "Mysteries"; a 1951 article in True Detective magazine; and a 1964 article for True magazine, a sensationalist "adventure"sizzler. Since when does a professional historian rely upon sources such as these?
UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass investigated three of the best-known alleged incidents of SHC to be found in the paperback press. He discovered that the first reportedly occurred on a ship that never existed. The second incident was a misrepresentation of a traffic accident, in which the driver of a truck was burned to death. And the third person reportedly burned to a cinder in a 1938 Volkswagen—which never existed. Dr. North did not take the trouble to check up on the claims of any of these tabloid scholars. Demons, he concludes.
Consider the phenomenon of the "psychic surgeons of Brazil and the Philippines. They reportedly perform painless surgery, often without instruments, reaching their hands into the patient's body as if operating on a ghost. Dr. North finds this to be compelling evidence of "demonic healing." Arigo, the Surgeon of the Rusty Knife, could reportedly remove tumors using a pen knife and scissors, without pain or bleeding and without leaving any evidence of the incision. Did not the cameras of Dr. Andrija Puharich record such an operation, proving its reality beyond all doubt? But North seems unconcerned that this same Puharich owns a tape recorder that switches itself on to receive cosmic messages from a Flying Saucer, telling him what to do to prevent World War III. Dr. North blithely relies on the "evidence" presented by Puharich and other occultists (while faulting Puharich for being too timid to "depart from formally established (scientific) procedures." Libera me Domine.)
It appears that North is unaware of a 1974 book (Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle) by Dr. William A. Nolan, an American surgeon who traveled to the Philippines, convinced that there was "something" to it and hoping to learn the secret. Nolan was acutely disappointed to find, after watching several of the best-known "psychic surgeons" in action, that they were performing sleight-of-hand with blood-stained cotton and chicken guts: "No one who had ever seen an operation would be misled for a moment." But Dr. North flies off into a rage whenever anyone accuses a "psychic" of practicing deception. He views this accusation as the last line of defense of the "one-sided and narrow" worldview of Western rationalism, refusing to consider that it might in fact be true.
The author's dislike of the scientific "establishment" appears to exceed the legendary antiestablishment sentiments of the Berkeley counterculture, which he also despises. North disposes of an extremely effective expose of a phony psychic with the observation that "the book was ecstatically praised by establishment scientists," as if this were proof of the book's unreliability. Fallen angels are not the only demons in Dr. North's cosmology.
Of what dark sin can the "establishment" scientists possibly be guilty, to incur such wrath? "Arigo's knife is cutting out the heart of science's most cherished presupposition: that the rational, categorizing mind of man can give an account, at least in principle,…of any known phenomenon." The transgression, it is clear, is the belief that human beings are competent to understand the phenomena of the visible universe without recourse to any supernatural information system. Equally odious is the concept of human autonomy: "Every man is under someone's yoke…there can be no order, no meaning, no existence apart from sovereign authority." Thus Dr. North appears to fall within that extremely small minority of free-market advocates who are opposed both to free scientific enquiry and to human liberty.
The reader will have to make his own decision about the validity of Gary North's assumption that the Bible represents divinely inspired truth. But all will agree that the very worst way to win converts to your religious views is to display the most gross credulity in secular matters. Of this he is plainly guilty: a professional historian has written a book on the occult without having done one iota of original research on the subject and has unquestioningly accepted as fact the claims to be found in mass-market occult paperbacks and True Detective magazine. He then expects the reader to accept his conclusion that the Third World has embraced socialism because it is in bondage to the Devil. As Jimmy Carter would say, "Trust me."
None Dare Call It Witchcraft has been very favorably reviewed in a leading conservative publication. One hears a lot of talk today about a "conservative intellectual movement" in America. Is this book a measure of its intellectual caliber? If such a movement does in fact exist, it would do well to repudiate this poorly researched, assumption-riddled book.
Robert Sheaffer is a graduate (in mathematics and astronomy) of Northwestern University and a free-lance science writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "None Dare Call It Witchcraft".